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SOWING SEEDS OF HOPE

Fifty-three-year-old Elizabeth Shankwaya lives with her six children in Chikuni in Zambia’s Southern Province. After her husband died, the bed she had shared with him and the metal roof of their home were removed, as per Tonga tradition. Nine years later, in 2007, Elizabeth was diagnosed with HIV. Hers is certainly not an easy life and, as she admits, “it is very difficult to provide for myself and the children.”

But Elizabeth is managing thanks to her garden, growing and selling carrots, squash and eggplants to raise income for her family. Her garden project took off after she joined the home-based care (HBC) programme of the Jesuit parish in Chikuni. Nearly all the 25,000 villagers in the sprawling area covered by the parish are small-scale subsistence farmers who struggle to put three daily meals on the table. Life is even harder for single mothers like Elizabeth as they balance work with looking after their children.

The Chikuni HBC offers a wide range of services to people living with HIV, starting with healthcare, education and psychosocial support; once a client is feeling better, the next step is training in some useful skills as well as support to work and raise an income. Those who have gained enough working experience are offered a helping hand to develop their own small businesses. HBC clients who are ahead in this process help and encourage others a step behind.

“The HBC trained me in sustainable agriculture so that I could start my own backyard garden to generate income for my family. I also received vegetable seeds that I used to start,” recalls Elizabeth. “At the moment, my carrots are ready for harvest and sale. I’ll sell them to the local community, including the Chikuni Mission hospital and radio station, and will use the profits to meet my family’s immediate needs, like school fees and food.”

Elizabeth’s family works as a team: “When we started, we agreed to use gardening as our main source of income. My children actively participate in the garden, where I teach them the skills I learned from the HBC. When my children grow up, I hope they can draw upon these skills to support themselves and their families.”

Self-reliance is high on the agenda of the Chikuni HBC and all Jesuit ministries for people with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. “Many Jesuit projects are striving to engage in activities that support their beneficiaries in the long-term without bringing about dependency,” says Fr Paterne Mombé SJ, AJAN Coordinator.

The vision of AJAN is “Empowered individuals, families and communities working towards an HIV and AIDS-free society and fullness of life.” Key to this vision is ensuring that, as much as possible, people with HIV are able to look after themselves and their families. Sustainable agriculture projects are ideal income-generating activities, meeting both the need to earn an income and the need for cheap, nutritious food – this is especially vital for people with HIV/AIDS who are taking antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

Some of the people benefiting from Jesuit projects are really very poor and would be unable to survive without support. This is the case in Kisangani, eastern Congo, where the Jesuit parish of Christ the King offers holistic support to people with HIV and orphans through the Parlons-SIDA (Let’s talk about AIDS) project. Parlons-SIDA has started planting corn and soya bean on land acquired nearby, selling some crops to raise money for the project and distributing the rest to hungry beneficiaries.

Creative initiatives to grow food abound. In Chikuni, some of the produce from organic agroforestry gardens run by the HBC is dried, packaged, and sold locally and in Lusaka. The lack of land has not deterred projects in overcrowded urban areas from getting into agriculture too. In Kangemi, a slum settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi, the Jesuit parish of St Joseph the worker runs the Upendo programme for very vulnerable children. Upendo gives the children daily meals as many would otherwise go without. Now, in a bid to help the children’s parents and guardians earn a bit of money and put fresh food on the table, Upendo has launched a ‘sack garden’ project: growing vegetables in polythene or cereal sacks on the doorstep or wherever there is a free corner.

One programme, Christian struggle in the battle against AIDS, runs a rural development project as part of its prevention strategy in very poor and remote areas in Madagascar. Since poverty is a vehicle of HIV, providing people with the means to grow rice (in this case) is as good a means as any of avoiding risky behaviours that lead to the spread of the virus.

Agriculture projects are not without their problems. Elizabeth listed some: “The biggest challenge in my garden is finding a clean, dependable water source. Also, quality gardening tools are often difficult to find and expensive to buy. Selling my produce at a good price can be a challenge because many people living in the community are poor and cannot afford higher-priced goods. I would like to find a better market where to sell my vegetables.”

Meanwhile, Elizabeth continues to receive support from the HBC. In 2012, she was invited to join a microfinance group. Each of these groups works as a community bank, where clients pool their savings and take turns receiving loans, usually to start or expand their gardens.

All things considered, the experience of Elizabeth and many others like her reveal that investing in agriculture as a means of enabling people with HIV to become self-reliant, is a great way to go. If Elizabeth’s story is anything to go by, they have the determination to make it happen: “I hope to develop my garden using sustainable agriculture methods, which are cheaper and more affordable than conventional farming. I am interested in attending more training by the HBC, especially about growing vegetables. My goal is to use my income to pay for all my children’s school fees and provide a healthy diet for them, making our household less poor.”

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